...................................................John Gorka interview

New Jersey-born singer-songwriter John Gorka has famously helped coin the term "new folk." In the mid to late 80s, he released a number of albums that found popularity with both the college radio set and older folkies. His debut album I Know (1987) and Land of the Bottom Line (1990) established his rich, emotive baritone and easygoing, friendly nature with fans of indie singer-songwriters as well as country and folk. He's been steadily producing albums in the last two decades, and his most recent effort, Writing in the Margins, was released on Red House, the label with which he began his career. Here is the following transcript of the conversation I had with Gorka recently, and we talk about everything from the emergence of freak-folk to being a "dark optimist" and the future of folk music in the 21st century.

John Gorka live at sisters april 1, 2006 ....Photo Lynn Woodward

PY: Back in mid 80s you were heralded as the creator of "new folk." What is the distinction between "old" folk and the "new" folk of the 80s?

John Gorka: I think that's probably a marketing term. I see myself as a part of the continuum - at least the kind of music I aspire to make - of music that could be called "folk." I think of that as music that's music that transcends any particular genre. I think folk music is music that is useful to people, particularly useful in their lives somehow.

In terms of lyric and songwriting? Folk did have an origin as protest music in the 60s.

I think maybe even more broad than that. I think one of the things that attracted me to folk music, or music that I learned was called folk, was that it seemed that it could be about any aspect of a person's life. They weren't just love songs; they weren't any particular room in the house. It could be political, social, but I think that [folk] was the first kind of music that I realized was out there that could touch on that many parts of a life.

A lot of people say you play "folk," but can your music also be traced in other genres, like country or singer-songwriter indie music?

Yeah it's kinda hard to categorize. I think I come out of the folk world, with coffeehouses and festivals, but I don't say I'm a particular sound.

Is there one feature that unites your music, either on a musical or philosophical level?

I don't know . . . the song would have to transcend the genre. Someone said that the song must be more important than the singer.

But also you've become famous largely on who you are as an individual, as a singer, a person with this unique baritone. Do you think that there is something that distinguishes "American" folk from folk from other countries, like the UK?

Yeah, I'm sure there's probably some differences in traditions, and something that is uniquely American. So much of American folk music has traces and roots in other countries, though. (Pauses) Maybe outlaw ballads and cowboy songs, maybe the country music aspect.

Or maybe American folk seems more fiercely independent somehow?

Yeah, yeah, like restless, roaming rambling boys, hard traveling, that kind of adventure.

When you first started out in 80s, did you ever forsee the career that you have today? Have the last 20 years been what you thought to happen? Have your goals and aspirations come to fruition, or has it been unpredictable?

My worldly goals were fairly modest; I wanted to discover the music that was in me. I didn't know exactly where it would go, or where the music would go, not even in the business end of things. I wanted to see if I could make a living playing music, and that was the basic goal. (Laughs) And I've been able to do that, that's been fun. Beyond that, I didn't really know how long it would last or anything like that. The fact that it's been able to get more and more fun, that the shows have gotten more fun over time is an interesting kind of a surprise.

Reflecting back upon your career, how have you seen your music change and grow?

I think one of the things that I found that I didn't always know, was that my interpretation of the song isn't necessarily the definitive one. The songs are bigger than my idea of them when I was writing them. It's like the audience out there completed the songs . . . How they took them into their own lives or put meaning in them was bigger than my idea of the song when I started writing them. People have come up to me and tell what my song meant to them or how it fit into their imaginations. It has made it easier for me to sing old songs because I feel like the songs aren't just my own; there's a common ground that I share with the audience.

In that was its almost sort of a joint effort or something.

Yeah, yes. The shows are concerts in that it's a "place," but it's not just an audience showing up to see a performance - it's an interaction between the audience and performer created together.

Where is your music headed in the next 20 years?

I guess continuing to do what I do. There's a couple things in the next couple months, this month and next, like doing a show with a lot of the other people who've played on the record, so more of a band show; and later next month I'm doing a show with an orchestra. And at the end of December, I'm doing a dvd: It's a live performance dvd, but there's no audience. It's me and some other players and I'm not exactly sure how that all is going to work. Those are just a few things where things the music can go. I'm also interested in the technology of being able to record something and have it available so quickly on the internet.

Are you involved in a lot of the production of your records?

I'm pretty involved. I realize that I'm not that interested in the technical end of it as much as performing on it. As far as being a producer, I don't think I'm all that good at that. I can do fairly small group kinds of things, but what it takes to make a record like my last - or probably any of them - it's nothing I'm all that good at or interested in getting good at. I don't know if that makes any sense. (Laughs)

What are your thoughts on how things like the fast dissemination of mp3s and myspace culture have changed what folk music can mean in the 21st century?

You can really reach an audience directly. And the fact is, you can make records or make high quality recordings at home and have them available to anyone who can get almost anywhere with a computer. It's a pretty amazing thing. The problem is how do you become known and if you are known, how do you reach people who don't know you other than word of mouth.

Compared to when you first started, what would you say the atmosphere for folk music is like? Audience more receptive? Is it easier to get involved because there are so many niche markets for so many different people?

Yeah, I think that's true. Mostly what I based what I've done is the songs and the live show; I guess there's more places to play in certain areas than there were before - there are certainly more people doing it than there used to be, so that's a very good thing.

Do you find a new generation of fans listening to you or previous fans from years ago that are loyal and stick with you?

I think people check in and check out. There are new people I'm seeing that are not all 40 or 50 year olds. It could be the children of the original audience or it could be younger people who have just discovered it. I feel like there are all these worlds out there that I don't know about that I would love if I found a way in. And I feel like there's more of an audience for this kind of music than people know. Especially as people get older, they think if a particular artist was any good they would have heard them play by now! (laughs)

Doesn't quite work like that, does it?

Right. It's not necessarily true. And I think there's more and more interesting music that might be happening in parallel universes.

Well, I was wondering if you were familiar with new "new folk" or "New Weird America" or "freak folk." Musicians like Animal Collective, Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom - people who have avant-garde experimental tendencies but also work within a strong folk tradition. What do you think about this?

I have not heard of that sort of thing but I'm glad to hear that it's happening. I'm interested in the electronic music as well, and I'm amazed at all the different categories and how quickly they proliferate. So it's nice to hear that folk music is mutating and growing.

I read this on your press release: "Not wishing to be billed as a generic, contemporary singer/songwriter, he became known as 'the intense white guy from New Jersey.'" (Gorka laughs) I was wondering why this tag of being from New Jersey is somehow intrinsically important to your identity as a musician, or defining who you are as an individual. I also know you spent time in Bethlehem (Penn.), and I was wondering how place and location figures into the songs you write.

I think being from New Jersey is one of those places that people make fun of . . . It has been the butt of jokes for a long time, and I think that where you're from really doesn't matter all that much. A book that I read by Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, is about a sportswriter living in New Jersey, and after I read that book that tries to express what it meant to be from New Jersey, it kind of crystallized a lot of feelings I had being from New Jersey; that's when I wrote the "I'm from New Jersey" song. But the place means nothing. That's one of the things that he said that I'll always remember. Place means nothing. And that's the way I feel. Some places get more oppressed than other places, but in the end it doesn't really matter all that much. And I think that if you're brought up in a place that gets negative . . . I think it's an asset in the end because you never give up. It's better to have an inferiority complex than a superiority complex.

It keeps you from being complacent, keeps you questioning and reimagining the status quo.


During the creative process, is there an element that is more difficult for you? More tough to write the music, choose the note selection, or more difficult with songwriting and building a narrative?

I think there's no one way that songs come about, but it seems like I can have music but not come up with lyrics, and if I can come up with lyrics, I can always come up with music. Maybe because some of the music is already built into the lyrics.

In an interview you gave in 1992 you said something that sounds like something could be applicable now: "It seems like I started to become more political in my thinking when I saw Dan Quayle at the Republican Convention in 1988, and I said "Boy, this guy's a moron!" I just couldn't believe it, this guy was going to be running for vice-president. Something was wrong-something is definitely wrong here. What happened to the statesmen that used to have the ability to inspire people when they made speeches and had a command of the language - unlike me. People who were really brilliant men and inspiring leaders-and now we have these empty-headed liars." (Gorka laughing throughout)

Wow. Well that's funny. (Laughs)

Does that sound like something you would say now or do you have a different approach?

Oh that's interesting. I probably wouldn't say things like that. But I think that I would probably put that into the songs, because I think people who don't necessarily see the world as you do are more likely to listen if it's part of the art. My main thing is, I want people to listen, and if there's going to be any kind of thing that provokes a conversation or a way of seeing the world in a slightly different way - you're not going to get that if you are making speeches. I feel like I can be more effective with the songs than in telling people how to think.

Your song "Writing in the Margins" seems like it carries a bit of political weight.

Yeah there's stuff in there. Probably "The Road with Good Intentions" is the most direct and that's one that I do without any kind of introduction other than just saying the title. In the past you've referred to yourself as a 'dark optimistic,' is that an outlook on life that you still uphold?

I think that's probably true. I think I'm better - I have a better attitude than I used to, but I think that there's still an element of if a new situation arises I'm more likely to see the down side first, maybe that's a way of protecting myself. One of my heroes was a Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers, and I remember his brother who played with him said that he wasn't so much a hopeless romantic as much as a relentless one. So I think that I if I could be like that, that's how I'd like to be.

What that reminds me of is Michael Ivins of The Flaming Lips calls himself a "cautious optimist," which I also think is a nice way of putting it, too.

Yeah, cautious optimistic, I mean . . . You need a lot of caution these days.

Is there anybody emerging into the music scene today that you see yourself in or that carry on this tradition that you admire?

There's some really talented up and comers. I've been listening to Antje Duvekot. And I think she's great. She's originally from Germany, but came up here when she was about 13. And another woman from Nova Scotia, Halifax, her name is Rose Cousins. There's some really good people coming up and the fact that record companies aren't what they used to be, the fact that it's more underground, I think has a tendency to make the people who are out there even better. I think that some people are going to be really surprised.

Gorka will be playing at the Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall on november 4, 2006 the Cornell campus (Ithaca, NY) with Mustards Retreat. The concert is presented by the Cornell Folk Song Society.


2006 popcorn youth